The feel-good stories have been few and far between in the Big Ten. Ohio State has been scrutinized due to its lack of games. The other traditional powers — Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska — flopped. From start to finish, the league has been rightfully mocked for the way it has handled the 2020 season.

The best part of this B1G season, though, has been watching Indiana and Northwestern rise up and challenge the status quo in a sport in which it is so hard to do so. Indiana, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise in the loaded B1G East. The Hoosiers (6-1), who haven’t finished a season in the AP poll since 1988, are currently No. 7. They are the only B1G team to stay within single digits of a Justin Fields-led Ohio State team.

This is the time of year when Indiana should be enjoying the fruits of its labor. But on Sunday, when bowl matchups were announced, the Hoosiers were left out of a New Year’s Six bowl, despite being ranked 11th in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Instead of playing Pac 12 champion Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, Indiana is going to the Outback Bowl against the fifth-place team in the SEC West, Ole Miss (4-5). It’s an insult to an Indiana program that has done everything right.

How could 3-loss Iowa State, with a 17-point loss to a Sun Belt team, get that final at-large spot for a NY6 bowl? Indiana’s only loss was by 7 points at Ohio State. It makes no sense. When Indiana head coach Tom Allen was asked what he would say to CFP Committee Chair Gary Barta, who is also Iowa’s AD, Allen told the media, “This would not be a good time (to answer that question).” (Even after getting screwed over, Allen sets an example for his players. That’s class.)

There is simply no excuse for Iowa State to be ranked ahead of Indiana. If the Hoosiers had been able to play more games, the Cyclones wouldn’t be ahead of them, but the Big Ten failed the Hoosiers and everyone else with this schedule that left no margin for error. Why is the Big Ten’s second-best team playing the SEC’s eighth-best team?

The bigger issue is that Indiana’s fan base understandably feels like the deck is stacked against it. First, the Big Ten changes the minimum games rule to put Ohio State in the conference title game over the Hoosiers. Then, a committee that is literally chaired by a Big Ten AD puts Ohio State as the third-best team in the country, citing the win over Indiana as a reason, but doesn’t give the Hoosiers the same credit for barely losing to the No. 3 team.

College football is trying to evolve (with expanding the Playoff, allowing athletes to transfer, permitting athletes to profit off their own name, etc.), but when fan bases like Indiana (and Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina) feel like they are constantly swimming upstream, why should these fans and universities feel like big-time football is a worthy endeavor?

Former Indiana AD Fred Glass was more candid than Allen and took it one step further, saying, “Our program, our coach and our kids got done in by the good-old-boy structure of the Big Ten football power structure.”

The Big Ten, and the college football establishment, owes Indiana and its fans an apology. If a story like Indiana isn’t worth celebrating, what is?

Going bowling

Speaking of bowls, here’s where the B1G teams are headed. Keep in mind that Penn State (4-5), Minnesota (3-4), Rutgers (3-5), Nebraska (3-5) and Michigan State (2-5) opted out. Depending on which players opt out, the Big Ten has an excellent chance to win 4 of these.

  • Duke’s Mayo Bowl: Wisconsin (3-3) vs. Wake Forest (4-4), Dec. 30
  • Music City Bowl: No. 15 Iowa (6-2) vs. Missouri (5-5), Dec. 30
  • Citrus Bowl: No. 14 Northwestern vs. Auburn (6-4), Jan. 1
  • Sugar Bowl: No. 3 Ohio State (6-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (10-1), Jan. 1
  • Outback Bowl: No. 11 Indiana (6-1) vs. Ole Miss (4-5), Jan. 2

Northwestern deserves our respect

No. 4 Ohio State 22, No. 14 Northwestern 10. The focus was rightfully on Ohio State and whether it would do enough to make the CFP. Northwestern, perhaps unfairly, was lost in the shuffle. Or perhaps, it’s unfair that we expect so little of the No. 14 team in the country. But at any rate, Pat Fitzgerald’s program deserves plenty of praise for the way it performed. Coaches hate moral victories because they send the wrong message, but we here in the media can give them out with no shame. And the Wildcats are more than worthy.

Even though Ohio State was down 20 players because of COVID, this was still the ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup: Ohio State, vying for its fourth straight B1G title and fourth CFP berth in 7 years, battling a program that doesn’t even have 4 blue-chip recruits on its entire roster. In fact, the only 2 Northwestern players who played Saturday that could’ve even sniffed Ohio State’s 2-deep based on recruiting pedigree were left tackle Peter Skoronski and defensive lineman Earnest Brown.

And yet for about 3 quarters, the Wildcats (6-2) gave the Buckeyes (6-0) all they could handle. The stats (329 total yards and 10 points) won’t do it justice, but the Wildcats had Ohio State’s defense on its heels. Switching off between traditional sets and Wildcat while going up-tempo, Northwestern scored on 2 of its first 3 possessions. The TD drive was capped by Peyton Ramsey running for 34 yards and then true freshman Cam Porter, the newly anointed starting running back, scoring out of the Wildcat on the next play.

With Northwestern on Ohio State’s 9 yard line with a chance to go up 2 scores on the first possession of the second half, OSU’s Justin Hilliard picked off Peyton Ramsey in the end zone. It was one of those “what-if” moments for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes didn’t take the lead until late in the third quarter, but putting them down 2 scores would’ve put the panic meter all the way up (instead of just 3/4 up).

While Ramsey had his moments — the 31-yarder to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman while under pressure was an absolute dime — Saturday showed why he ultimately lost his job at Indiana and transferred to Northwestern. He’s a decent QB, but Tom Allen recognized that there was a ceiling with Ramsey, and that with time, Michael Penix Jr. could elevate the Hoosiers to greater heights. Ramsey threw for 224 yards, no TDs and 2 INTs on Saturday, as the Wildcats didn’t score in the final 36 minutes of the game. Penix torched this same defense (when it was at full strength) to the tune of 491 yards and 35 points. Leading a team to a division title is nothing to scoff at, but to win a Big Ten title, especially against Ohio State, a team will need better QB play.

In any event, Northwestern has legitimate stars to build around over the next few years. It’s not unheard of for freshmen to play key roles on subpar teams, but it’s rare on teams playing for conference titles. Northwestern’s trio of safety Brandon Joseph, left tackle Peter Skoronski and running back Cam Porter are legit building blocks who have already proven themselves on a big stage. Joseph leads the country in interceptions with 6, the latest of which being his unbelievable one-handed snatch of a Justin Fields pass (see Tweet below). Skoronski is PFF’s second-highest-graded tackle in the Big Ten, behind only Ohio State’s Thayer Munford. And Porter has come out of nowhere within the last 2 weeks to become a focal point of Northwestern’s offense. He led the Wildcats with 61 yards on 16 carries, giving a much-needed jolt to this offense.

Whether the Wildcats have a shot at returning to Indianapolis next season may depend on whether Ramsey and its senior linebacking trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin return (or have capable replacements). And whether Northwestern can fend off the inevitable offer from the Chicago Bears to hire Fitzgerald.

How concerned should Ohio State be?

Heading into Championship Weekend, we knew which teams were likely to be in the Playoff. And now, we know which teams have a real chance: Alabama and Clemson. Ohio State, if it plays like it did against Northwestern, does not have a prayer.

The much-maligned Buckeyes defense that entered Saturday last in pass defense in the Big Ten actually settled in quite nicely, led by backup linebacker Justin Hilliard. It was the offense, which failed to score a first-half TD for the first time since Oct. 20, 2018 at Purdue, that raised eyebrows.

Justin Fields, for the second time in 3 games, threw multiple interceptions. In your wildest dreams, would you ever have believed that Ohio State fans were begging a Fields-led offense to stop passing? That’s how bad it was. (And also how good Trey Sermon was.) Fields was unrecognizable in completing 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards and 2 INTs. Sure, he was without his most-trusted wideout, Chris Olave, but it’s hard to chalk up his underwhelming performance to just that.

In its struggles, though, did Ohio State stumble upon an underused weapon to deploy against Clemson? There is no understating what Trey Sermon did on Saturday. He was every bit as good as the box score suggests in racking up 331 yards (an Ohio State single game record) and 2 TDs on 29 carries. The graduate transfer from Oklahoma finally got his chance after starting running back Master Teague left with an injury, and after he tallied a modest 7 carries for 60 yards in the first half, he went crazy in the second half. Running behind an offensive line back at full strength, Sermon put the Buckeyes on his back and into the CFP.

It feels strange to say so, but the 29 carries probably weren’t enough. Sure, Sermon hadn’t had more than 13 carries in a game since 2018, but each run was seemingly better than the last.

The first few drives of the second half had to be maddening for Ohio State fans as the Buckeyes battled back from a 10-6 deficit. Just as Sermon would get going and look unstoppable, Ryan Day would take the ball out of his hands. After Sermon runs of 13 and 12 yards on the first drive, Fields threw an interception. After a Sermon run for 65, he didn’t touch the ball on the next 3 plays before Blake Haubeil pulled a 42-yard field goal wide left.

Day finally stuck with Sermon on the third drive, giving him 5 carries on a 7-play scoring drive that put the Buckeyes up for good. On Ohio State’s other TD drive in the fourth quarter, Sermon carried on 7 of the 9 plays. After his first TD, Sermon tapped his left wrist as if to say, “It’s time.” It was past time, actually, for Sermon to put that game away. Day got the memo just in time.

Nebraska bumbles by Rutgers

Nebraska 28, Rutgers 21. This was a fitting end to Greg Schiano’s first season at Rutgers and Scott Frost’s third season at Nebraska. The only surprising part was that Rutgers didn’t find a way to win and that Nebraska didn’t find a way to lose.

On the surface, a team that outgains its opponent by 368 yards (620-252) should not be in a position where it needs a fourth-quarter interception and a subsequent clock-killing drive to win. But this is just life at Nebraska in the present day. Think back to the wins over Penn State (which required 2 red-zone defensive stands in the fourth quarter) and Purdue (which hasn’t won since October). Nothing comes easy.

This is a theme for the Huskers (3-5), who will finish with a losing record for the fourth straight season and fifth time in 6 years. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez turned the ball over 4 times, including losing fumbles on 2 of the first 3 drives. That’s not unusual for Martinez, who is a terrific runner but has been plagued by ball-security issues. He has lost 15 fumbles in the last 3 years. As a freshman, he tied for the lead nationally in lost fumbles; 2 years later, he is second. It’s tough to win that way.

Here’s an example of things being extraordinarily difficult for Nebraska, even when things work out. The Huskers couldn’t score a TD from the 1-yard line without exposing its best player, Wan’Dale Robinson, to a huge hit from arguably Rutgers biggest hitter, linebacker Tyshon Fogg, that left him shaken up momentarily. That entire sequence was dumbfounding. After Dedrick Mills rumbled 43 yards to set up first-and-goal from the 2, he was a decoy on the next 4 plays. One of the plays was a shovel pass (that went nowhere) to Chris Hickman, who hadn’t had a catch in his career before that. Why not reward Mills, a senior, who could’ve been playing his last game?

While Nebraska undoubtedly has plenty to work on, it can go into the offseason on a high note. As infuriating as the first half must’ve been, the Huskers were terrific in the second half, specifically in the final quarter and a half. After Martinez’s fourth turnover — an interception when he overthrew Robinson — Nebraska trailed 21-14 midway through the third quarter. The Huskers could’ve folded on the road playing in the bitter cold. Instead, Cam Taylor-Britt led a spirited defensive effort, limiting Rutgers to 44 total yards on its next 4 drives.

An offensive line starting 3 freshmen, including prized recruit Turner Corcoran at left tackle, paved the way for the Huskers to pile up 355 second-half yards, including 3 (!!!) scoring drives of 90 yards or more. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes, who had 40 career starts, opted out last Monday to train for the NFL Draft, and that opened the door for Corcoran, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound true freshman who was the No. 48 overall recruit in the 2020 class. He entered Friday’s game having played 18 snaps all season, and he played 88. Corcoran will need to be a cornerstone who helps the Huskers contend with powerful teams like Wisconsin and Iowa in the next few years.

Nebraska will have serious questions this offseason. What is the plan with Luke McCaffrey? Can Adrian Martinez finally take the next step? Are there skill players outside of Robinson ready to consistently contribute? The defense is no longer a liability after it finished 7th in the B1G in total defense (the first time it has been better than 10th since 2016), but can it become a strength? Can this offensive line get on the level of others in the Big Ten West?

There just wasn’t much of anything that Nebraska did well in 2020. The improvement must come across the board.

MVPs

1. Trey Sermon (Ohio State)

There’s no sugarcoating it: Sermon saved Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. I’m not sure the Buckeyes beat Northwestern without him. After Master Teague left the game with an apparent injury, Sermon exploded for an Ohio State single-game rushing record of 331 yards — and 2 TDs — on 29 carries. He was unstoppable on a day Justin Fields looked human.

2. Justin Hilliard (Ohio State)

Hilliard did it all for the Buckeyes. The linebacker intercepted a pass in the end zone, recovered a fumble, registered 2 tackles for loss and led the Buckeyes with 9 tackles. Not bad for a guy who wouldn’t have even been starting if not for Baron Browning being out.

3. Garrett Groshek (Wisconsin)

With starting running backs Jalen Berger and Nakia Watson both out, plus star left tackle Cole Van Lanen, Groshek made sure the offense had its most productive day in over a month. Groshek plowed ahead for 154 yards and a TD on 24 carries — his first time with more than 16 rushing yards since the season opener.

4. Jahan Dotson (Penn State)

Dotson has become arguably the most dynamic player in the Big Ten, taking that mantle from former teammate KJ Hamler. Dotson looked like Hamler on Saturday, taking short passes from Sean Clifford all the way to the house. He had 2 TD catches of 70 yards or more, and he also had a 50-yard punt return to set up another TD.

5. Dedrick Mills (Nebraska)

Mills had his best game in a Nebraska uniform, registering 236 yards from scrimmage (191 rushing, 45 receiving).

Honorable mention: LB Leo Chenal (Wisconsin), S Brandon Joseph (Northwestern), KR Aron Cruickshank (Rutgers), S Christian Izien (Rutgers), WR Wan’Dale Robinson (Nebraska), RB Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota), S Eric Burrell (Wisconsin), LB Brandon Smith (Penn State), LB Will Honas (Nebraska), S Lamont Wade (Penn State)